NEW PRAGUE, Minn. – Jeremy Geske was just nine years old when his father said he could pick out two sheep from his flock.
He happened to pick the best ewe lamb, and he picked so well, that his father let him have the ewe lamb’s twin sister to start the 4-H flock.
Every year after, he selected another ewe lamb from his father’s flock.
“If you have the number one draft pick every year, you end up with a pretty good flock after 10-12 years,” Geske said. “I kept the offspring and that’s how I got started in sheep.”
When he reached adulthood, he had already built a high quality Suffolk flock.
In similar fashion, the U.S. sheep industry hopes to build up sheep numbers through a program called “Let’s Grow with Two Plus.”
Sponsored as an American Sheep Industry (ASI) Association initiative, the primary objective of this national campaign is to encourage current sheep producers to expand the size of their flock by two ewes per flock or by two ewes per 100 head.
Today, Geske serves as the assistant executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association and the Minnesota Pork Board. At his small family farm, he also maintains a Suffolk sheep seed stock flock, featuring those original bloodlines.
“Most of the sheep are sold as breeding stock, we try to select for the genetics that make us more competitive on a national basis than other seed stock producers,” he said. “A large part of our business is also selling rams as terminal sires to commercial breeders. A lot go out West to the mountain states. This year with lamb prices being good, ram prices have also been good.”
Geske and other sheep producers recently held a media event to say the industry needs more sheep and sheep producers.
“We need help growing our industry a little bit,” said Burton Pfliger, ASI secretary/treasurer and a sheep farmer from Bismarck. “This is a program and an initiative that we developed to try to build upon what we have and to entice new producers into the industry as well.”
Lamb and wool prices are at all time high prices. Cull ewe and pelt markets are also strong in 2011.
The ASI hopes these incentives help build sheep numbers and the infrastructure needed to meet growing demand for lamb and wool products.
Kroger, one of the nation’s largest grocery store chains, launched an American lamb branded campaign in 2011. Sixty percent of the American lamb at retail is successfully distributed via Kroger.
Super Wal-mart also committed to exclusively selling American lamb for 2012 and 2013.
In addition, nontraditional sales continue to grow. On-farm sales, farmers markets and local locker plants are serving ethnic markets. The ASI determined that one-third of the U.S. lamb crop has moved outside the traditional industry infrastructure to serve nontraditional lamb markets.
The U.S. Armed Forces are also asking for wool products for the military. Wool offers many benefits to the military, including wool’s fire retardant and protective properties.
Technology, called Superwash, is also now available in the United States to produce high quality wool garments that will not shrink when washed.
With all of these new opportunities, the ASI is calling on sheep producers to expand.
In addition to growing their flocks by two head per 100, producers are also asked to increase the average birthrate per ewe to two lambs per year.
The final goal is to increase the harvested lamb crop by 2 percent – from 108 percent to 110 percent.
As of Jan. 1, 2011, there were about 5.53 million head of sheep in the United States. The top producing states include Texas at 880,000 sheep, California, at 610,000 sheep, Colorado at 370,000 sheep, and Wyoming at 365,000 sheep.
South Dakota had 275,000 sheep, Montana had 230,000 sheep, Minnesota had 130,000 sheep, and North Dakota had 78,000 sheep.
Texas and Arizona have the largest numbers of sheep operations – 8,700 and 5,000 respectively. California comes in next with 4,100, Pennsylvania with 3,800, and Iowa with 3,500 operations.
Minnesota has 2,500, South Dakota has 1,700, Montana has 1,500 and North Dakota has 680 operations.
“We have some smaller sheep flocks, but certainly have a large number of producers,” said Pfliger.
In 2010, the U.S. sheep production sales were $786 million. About 163 million pounds of lamb and mutton were consumed in 2010, mainly on the East and West Coast.
The U.S. also produced 30.6 million pounds of greasy wool in 2010, with an average fleece rate of 7.3 pounds. The U.S. sheep pelt is also the largest in the world, averaging 8.5 square feet. There are many uses for these products, and prices have rebounded to record levels.
With record high demand and the concern that the U.S. sheep producer can meet that demand, led to the Let’s Grow with Two Plus campaign.
“Our goal moving forward is we must continue to supply that traditional market channel – to keep the American lamb in our largest grocery store chain,” he said. “At the same time we need to keep feeding that emerging demand for lamb in those non-traditional markets.”
The American Sheep Industry is encouraging producers to use tools like increasing the ewe ration ahead of breeding to increase the number of lambs conceived. Teaser rams, crossbreeding, vaccinations and an emphasis on health are also encouraged.
The Sheep Industry Handbook is also available to producers to work through management schemes that may present a problem.
“If you have a healthier ewe and a healthier lamb, everything seems to work better,” Pfliger added.
Predators, disease and mortality are real concerns within the sheep industry. The sheep industry intends to help producers find answers to these challenges. Lambing barns, predator fences, guard dogs and parasite control can help keep lambs and ewes alive.
The total cumulative effect of these initiatives could result in an increase inventory of 315,000 more lambs. At today’s market prices, the value is $71 million more for sheep producers.
An additional 2 million more pounds of wool would equate to an additional $3 million.
The initiative is also set up to encourage and facilitate new producers into the sheep production business.
The ASI has teamed up with many state associations to serve as a mentor network to new producers. For more information, farmers can visit growourflock.org or sheepusa.org to read stories about sheep producers and learn more.